Outsound New Music Summit: The Breath Courses Through Us

This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet.  From the Outsound Summit website:

The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York.  We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka.  The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary.  We get to hear their distinct personalities.  Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary.  It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.

Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast.  Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings.  Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be.  I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.

More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.

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